Once Upon a Word
Word Histories, Mysteries,
Hoaxes, and Hype:
Sorting the Tall Tales
from the Truth
Breathes there anyone who has not wondered, from time to time, about the origin of a familiar word or expression? For those of us who are naturally curious about the English language, hardly a day goes by without the question arising: Where does that dadblamed thing come from, anyway?
Although words are human creations, few of us know the stories behind them. Most of our discussions about word and phrase origins are limited to speculation. And in these days of instant Internet communciation, when we are bombarded with all manner of linguistic information, some of it trustworthy and much of it not, few of us possess the means to detect the etymological tall tales and hoaxes that circulate in cyberspace.
A friend tells you that the word handicapped comes from disabled beggars using their caps to panhandle, another friend asserts that Xmas is insulting to Jesus, and a coworker claims that jiffy is an actual unit of time. Can you believe any of it?
You receive an emissive (my proposed word for an email message) from an ostensible authority calling for a boycott of the word picnic because its origin is presumably linked with the lynching of African Americans. Could such a disturbing etymology be true?
Another emissive floats in informing you that a certain well-known four-letter word in fact stands for ship high in transit. It seems plausible, but how can you know for sure?
Then there are the etymological mysteries that suddenly occur to you as you're going about the business of life. You're eating a corned beef sandwich and you wonder, Why do they call it corned beef? You're minding your p's and q's and it hits you: What the heck are p's and q's? You're watching an old movie when somebody says, "Your goose is cooked," and you think, How in the world did that culinary phrase come to mean "It's curtains for you, buster"?
The answers to these, and many other original questions, await you in the following pages.
Q. I am going stark raving mad trying to find out where the phrase as the worm turns comes from and what it means. I've searched the Web and scoured my library to no avail. Please help!
A. The worm turns comes from an old proverb, "Tread on a worm and it will turn," meaning that even the most defenseless creature will, when sufficiently provoked, attempt to defend itself. Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, where he wrote, "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on / And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood." Today it usually means that the loser or oppressed party is now (or will become) the victor. The expression usually appears as the worm turns or the worm will turn, not as the worm turns (which strikes me as a confusion with "as the world turns").
Q. Criminals are often told by the good guys, Your goose is cooked. What is the origin of this phrase? Is there a historical connection between geese and crooks?
A. Goose-cooking apparently has nothing to do with criminals etymologically. It just means to ruin someone's plan or project, to rain on somebody's parade.
There are several oddball theories about the origin of the phrase. One says that some folks in a besieged town in the sixteenth century hung a goose from a tower as a symbol of contempt for the town's attackers, the goose being a proverbial "symbol of stupidity and futility," explains one etymological dictionary. The attackers, enraged, redoubled their efforts and burned the town to the ground, thus fully cooking that goose.
Another colorful but dubious theory connects the phrase with the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. My sources agree, however, that this locution probably doesn't have such a fabulous origin and that it isn't particularly old. The earliest record of it is from 1851, in a London street ballad attacking the pope for appointing a certain cardinal: "If they come here we'll cook their goose, / The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman."
Straight Eye for the Queer Gay
Q. I'm interested in knowing how the word gay went from meaning "merry" or "lively" to "homosexual." The gay 1890s has a totally different connotation from the gay 1990s.
A. The transformation occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and took root in the dictionaries in the 1980s. The usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary points out, among other things, that "gay is distinguished from homosexual in emphasizing the cultural and social aspects of homosexuality."
Some people resent that a "special-interest group" has appropriated gay and made it difficult, if not impossible, to use the word in its traditional sense. But no thinking person could misinterpret the historical use of gay (as in the gay nineties), and the appropriation of a word-especially one with plenty of common synonyms- is a small price to pay to fill such an obvious need.
Q. Obviously, the expression pushing the envelope has nothing to do with the United States Postal Service. But I haven't a clue where it does come from. Do you know?
A. Pushing the envelope comes from aviation. The envelope is aviation engineering jargon for the limits within which an aircraft can perform. When a pilot attempts to make the aircraft perform at or beyond those limits, it is called pushing the envelope. The expression traveled from aviation into other technical contexts, and by the 1980s it had entered the general vocabulary, where it is used of any attempt to push something to the limit, go beyond the expected or the norm, take risks-not something the Postal Service is known for doing.
What's a Petard, and Why Does It Get Hoisted?
Q. What is the origin of the expression to hoist with his own petard? Is it hoist with or hoist by? When it's used in the past tense, is it you were hoist or hoisted with/by your own petard? And what the heck is a petard, anyway? Can you tell I'm royally confused about this one?
A. These are all legitimate questions, and you are not alone in your confusion. Let me try to sort out this royal mess for you.
A petard was a case containing an explosive, used in warfare to blow open a door, a gate, or create a hole in a wall. The word comes from the Latin pedere, to break wind. When you are hoist (or hoisted) with (or by) your own petard, you are blown up by your own bomb (or flatus). The expression first appeared in Shakespeare's Hamlet as hoist with his own petar (the form without d is an archaic spelling). It is used figuratively today to mean that your own scheming against others backfires and hurts you instead.
Should it be hoist or hoisted, and what should follow it, with or by? There's some wiggle room here. "The usual renderings are hoist with his own petard and hoisted by his own petard," says Garner's Modern American Usage. If you want to sound literary and show that you know your Shakespeare, stick with hoist with his own petard. However, notes Garner, because hoisted by his own petard "is nearly four times as common, it shouldn't be labeled incorrect." And neither should hoisted with his own petard, which also seems respectable to me.
Copyright © 2005 by Charles Harrington Elster
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